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Turtle traffic

This is the season when female turtles travel up from permanent water to lay (by usual preference) in loose, sandy, south-facing higher ground. From Farrar Pond, many—hundreds?—of painted (Chrysemys picta) and snapping (Chelydra serpentina) turtles may plod a quarter-mile or more to find or return to their favored spots, and can spend a couple of days testing soils, avoiding predators and people, depositing eggs in one nest or several, then staggering home. When a relaxing bath is available, like this constructed frog pond,

S0618121fpthey may remain there for a few days before laying, and up to a month before returning home. These charming if shy

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Up periscope!

visitors are always welcome, even though they may entirely consume a carefully maintained drift of duckweed, apparently easier pickin’s than tough lily leaves and fast-moving tadpoles. Snapping turtles—though generally quite harmless to people even when provoked—are such fine hunters that they can take a dozen or more frogs and hundreds of tadpoles in a few days. Even shyer in the water than painted turtles, they are not easily netted or otherwise sent packing. Life is a balance, even (or especially) when semi-artificially constrained.

Both species tend to lay here between late-May and early June. Typically, more than 90% of nests are predated the first night, leaving a gaping hole and scattered shells as a sad reminder.

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(More at A Long First Journey.) Gravid or post-partum mothers may be hit by speedy and inattentive SUVs as they leave the woods

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to cross streets

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or rest in the sun.

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15″ shell

A few are taken by large predators. Tiny creeping newborns

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1.5″ shell

that do appear each autumn and spring (developing embryos can overwinter if not adequately ripened before the ground chills), like these of a rarely witnessed hatching,

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Look for the eyes

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face much greater risks than their parents from automobiles

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and predators including carnivorous mammals, birds and even bullfrogs.

Non-vehicular hazards are part of the natural cycle. Offsetting the high mortality of eggs and hatchlings, turtles live for a very long time, not uncommonly half a century or more. Eggs and soft-shelled young are seasonal food for all those other species. Yet with pollution and eutrophication, their shallow-water homeworld ever dwindles. And with ever more of the surrounding land paved,

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mowed, built upon, toxified and otherwise rendered unfit, safe passage and safe nesting are ever harder to attain. So it is a courtesy to these species—cautiously recommended by conservation authorities—to lend a helping hand (or, better, calm and divert traffic) when a mother encounters paving. Newborns may safely (for all concerned) be carried across

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or even all the way down to near the edge of a nearby body of suitable water

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to make their own way in:

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Since one theory of navigation is that turtles know “home” by the taste of their first swim, it may be more important than usual not to meddle overmuch.

There are, however, times when it may be appropriate to take more direct protective action, relocating early nests or hatchlings. This pile of sand, shortly due to be relocated, was an inevitable target for both mother and multiple predators drawn by her smell and that of disturbed earth:

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But empty shells are absent; one small tragedy was averted as the 36 spherical eggs

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had been removed to a safer spot and reburied within the few hours during which they remain soft, flexible and safe to handle. Similarly, this soon-to-be-moved chip pile, though shaded, may have been attractive to both of these moms for easy digging and the internal warmth of fermentation and decay:

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One eventually moved on to lay elsewhere; the other’s clutch of 57 was again rescued

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and reburied.

A less frequent occurrence is the accidental excavation of a nest. Turtles tend to prefer the same loose, porous and sunny earth beloved of gardeners, and may place eggs near a recently installed planting or in a spot prepared for one.  One chance shovel thrust turned up a small nest with two little snappers, already hatched and just starting to dig their way to freedom:

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Though fairly long out of shell, the smaller was clearly less ready for the outer world, yolk sac not yet fully absorbed:

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Perhaps the hatching of one triggered the same in its nestmate, with multiple evolutionary advantages including cooperative digging and predator satiation.

Tempting though it be to observe the whole process, it is best to leave the mothers alone until homeward bound.

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Though not at all aggressive, they spook easily, and may be driven from preferred(and long-accustomed nesting sites if they observe observers:

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Do not tickle my chin

Having left her genetic legacy on dry land, this mother crawls off, with no knowledge of the fate of her efforts:

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–though who knows what tales these ladies may be sharing?

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